Good COP, Bad COP

Reflections on covering the Copenhagen climate summit

COPENHAGEN—Political deadlock and convoluted information came with the territory for journalists covering the climate change summit in Copenhagen, where world leaders were supposed to hammer out a treaty to combat global warming. Beyond that, however, journalists’ objectives and experiences there were often very different.

At the conference, which concluded Saturday with a weak political statement of participants’ intention to address global warming and its impacts, journalists dealt with all-nighters, scores of press conferences, sporadically leaked drafts of potential agreements, confusing scientific and political jargon, and secretive bureaucrats.

For the most part, they took it in stride, but there were plenty of grumbles here and there. One pet peeve was the ten-minute walk between the room where press conferences were held and the media center where reporters wrote and filed their stories. There were more serious concerns as well, however, including objections that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had access to the media center.

“[Interest groups] can be fairly intrusive, and its cuts into my reporting time,” said The New York Times’s John Broder.

Jonathan Wootliff, a climate-change consultant based in Prague who writes for the National Journal and The Jakarta Post, added that NGOs often seemed to have more right of way than journalists did. “There is absolutely no ambiguity where journalists are not supposed to go,” he said. “It’s absurd that journalists should be treated the same way as NGOs.”

Others simply felt yanked around. On the final evening of the summit, for instance, word that President Barack Obama was holding a press conference led to a stampede by journalists racing from all the corners of the Bella Center to the press-conference room. They were just catching their breath when there was an announcement that it appeared to be a rumor. Some laughed. Some surmised that the Americans spread the rumor to clear the corridors and halls of reporters and photographers as Obama made his way to meet the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown.

Obama did meet with a select group of media organizations before leaving, however. They were the first to report that the Obama had brokered a “deal” with a small group of major emitters.

A few hours later, when the so-called Copenhagen Accord (a non-binding statement of the signatories’ intention to address global warming) was introduced to the delegations of all 193 participating countries, a handful of top diplomats criticized Obama and the media, announcing that a deal had been reached before the entire conference of parties had been consulted.

“Earlier this evening I walked past a television camera where a prominent leader was suggesting he had a deal,” the chief negotiator for the island state of Tuvalu, Ian Fry, told the delegates. “Negotiations by the media may be the norm in some countries, other countries have greater respect for democratic processes.”

Fry was joined by the delegate of Bolivia, who said: “We have heard about the statements that were made for example to the press, in the media without having analyzed it in this room with the countries, with the states and the people that are represented here.”

The premature announcement of the Copenhagen Accord was symptomatic of the main challenge for journalists at the summit: distinguishing between substance and chaff in the midst of an information glut.

Television journalists had the additional burden of reducing the rigmarole to a few sound bites. “I have to summarize different points of view from ten different press conferences into ninety seconds,” said Shamsher Singh, a television journalist from India. “And your responsibility is quadrupled because the whole world is watching.”

A senior journalist who has covered the defense beat, Singh believes that India’s national interest was at the heart of its journalists’ coverage of the summit, where their country made clear that economic growth and reducing poverty are its overriding priorities. However, Singh added, while the Indian media supported its government’s position in Copenhagen, it has been far more critical at home.

“The country’s interest takes precedence in reporting at the international level and in this case development is more important than climate,” he said. “On the local and national level, everyone can see how we take the government to task.”

“Let us not be hypocritical about this,” his cameraperson, Kripal Singh, interjected. “It is same with the American or any other media.”

Indeed, Chinyere Fred-Adegbulugbe, a senior correspondent for The Punch, a Nigerian daily newspaper, said that her pieces about a Copenhagen played up the Africa angle and its acute vulnerability in the climate crisis. “I think Africa is right and I have that in the back of my mind when I write, but that does not make me fake facts,” she said.

Still, there were others who claimed that they covered the event with a sense of detachment.

“Do I care about the outcome here? No,” said the Times’s Broder. “I can’t say that the fate of the world is being decided right now here at Copenhagen, but skepticism about this meeting doesn’t make me a skeptic about the science.”

Stacy Feldman, a reporter based in Tel Aviv who insists on “not feeling, just investigating,” admits that being totally “objective” is hard. “I try and do objective reporting from the perspective that a global deal is good for the world,” she said.

Like Broder, Feldman, was not rooting for one result or another. “I won’t be sad if no deal is reached. I’m simply not emotionally invested in it,” she said.

But Fred-Adegbulugbe said she couldn’t relate to such detachment. “I’m told to be neutral since it’s not my business, but it is my business because I’m involved in it,” she said.

Following the Copenhagen Accord, critics have lampooned the summit as a United Nations circus with zero results, but there are some veteran climate journalists who saw subtle but meaningful differences.

“There are no climate skeptics here,” said Wootliff, who has covered every major U.N. climate meeting since the 1990s, calling this one a “good COP.” “There has been a fundamental shift. This is the first time I’ve heard people talking about the future of their children and their grandchildren.”

What will come of all the pomp and circumstance remains to be seen, of course, but some journalists were impressed by the sense of having witnessed a historic moment.

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I think, was it worth spending so much money and time?” said Fred-Adegbulugbe. “But I’ve learned new things and met new people. Most of all, I want to be able to say I was there.”

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Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Daily Beast.